Writing is a Bad Habit: As You Know, We Talk About Writing Here

Exposition and world-building can be difficult things to work with as an author.  You, the creator, have all of these ideas, fascinating characters, and magnificent vistas locked in your brain and you want so desperately to share them with your reader.  In today’s Writing is a Bad Habit, we take a look at some pitfalls you can run into as you lay out characterization, world-building, and exposition.

The problem with laying out a world for the reader to discover is balancing the need to explain facts about the world and how it works with the overall pacing and dramatic tension.  The biggest mistakes that we as writers tend to make in regards to this almost all relate back to this core balance.  Most often, we tend to shove that balance off into the side of explanation over pacing, leading to sections of the book that read more like textbooks than entertaining works of fiction.

One of the most common of these mistakes is commonly called the ‘As You Know’ trope (AYK for short).  It takes the simple form of one character informing another character of certain facts and information which the other character *already knows*.  This info dump almost always begins with the exact words of ‘As you know …’, hence the trope’s name.  While I have seen this happen in normal human dialogue from time to time, it’s not very common.  More importantly, it is a very transparent attempt to make a large block of ‘telling’ look like it is ‘showing’ instead.  It rarely works and it isn’t uncommon for a reader to want to skip past what they know is going to be pages of incoming blah.  AYK is a mistake for the reason that ‘telling’ is a mistake: it takes the reader out of their immersion and sets them up with a textbook.

Another mistake common in exposition is the Informed Attribute.  I’ve touched on this in a few other articles about characters and characterization, but it is also tied into exposition as well.  It is, again, the simple act of having a character *tell* another character about a personality trait, skill, or some other quality of a third character without actual characterization to confirm or deny the ‘tell’.  That last part is important, because while it may be a little annoying for a character to repeat something that is obvious by the characterization, it’s far far worse when the character’s actions do not match what they are told to the reader to be.  Informed Attributes are usually used by a writer to attempt to make the reader attach certain attributes to the character without taking the time to show them, which usually works horribly.

Probably the ur-mistake of exposition is the straight-up, old-fashioned Info Dump.  Most often done directly by the author himself in a third person piece, though occasionally dressed up by coming out of the mouth of another character, this is as it sounds: a straight, no-interaction, no-action-period block of information being dropped on the reader.  It is usually hidden behind a wise teacher or native or some other mouthpiece giving all this information to the protagonist, but sometimes it’s just …. there.  It is the ultimate expression of ‘telling, not showing’.

When you look at these, you might wonder for a moment why this matters so much?  After all, if the reader doesn’t have the right information to process the plot and the world the characters inhabit, doesn’t that mean they will be lost?

Of course.  But there are ways to interject exposition while remaining the pacing of the plot and through ‘showing, not telling’.  Oh, sure, there will always be bits of telling here and there, but it has to be handled in a natural, realistic fashion.  More importantly, though, you want most of your characterization and world-building to be shown through the interactions of the characters in their world.  Let context, dialogue, and description paint the pictures.  Give your readers the due credit of not needing everything spoon-fed to them.  If you do your best to follow this path, the few times you DO need to tell them things directly are far more likely to be forgiven.

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3 comments

  1. Real people do carry on data-dumping monologues with their companions, if they have psychological pressure that compels them to speak. A perfect example of how this can be rendered in fiction are Ben Gunn’s monologues in “Treasure Island.”

    Another genre in which I’ve seen this abused is historical fiction. I’ve read several such books – put out by the major publishers – that were plastered with praise for “finely drawn characters,” when all those characters did was to give each other history lessons. I pontificate about this in my post, “Behold the Power of Bergkäse,” at http://wp.me/p30cCH-9F

    1. That is a good example of those few times you can get away with an infodump. It’s as important to know when you can break the usual rules as it is to know the rules themselves.

      Ugh, yes, I’ve seen that in historical fiction as well and it makes me grind my teeth. Thanks for the blog share about it!

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